A Mission Shaped Heart: Participation in God’s Story
Some time ago I defined missional as:
Being bent on making Jesus the number one priority and because of this seeing his/herself as sent on mission for Jesus.
Now, from that simple definition its obvious that Jesus is to be at the heart of missional living but worked out, what does this look like?
God’s Story In History
At a fundamental level, a missional heart looks towards God’s working in history. There are several broad motifs that can be used to describe God’s work: creation, fall, redemption and restoration. Creation of course refers to the formation of this universe and everything in it ex nihlio. Ex nihlio means “from nothing” and is important because it really is solely God that is the catalyst for all. John 1 says that all things were created through Jesus and that His life is our light (which parallels the creation event in Genesis). This is also important because right from the beginning man was created to enter into God’s story. Unfortunately though things weren’t just happy with no end. In spite of things being perfect originally, sin entered into the world — the fall happened. Man disobeyed God and unleashed a destructive force into the world that is tearing it to bits. Luckily, though, this isn’t the end either. In order to restore man and creation to Himself, God became flesh, moved into our neighborhood and died at our hands — the perfect sacrifice through which we have redemption. It seems like this is the end of the story for a lot of individuals and groups. God, though, wants to see all of creation restored unto Himself; according to His word — in the end it will be. In the meantime we are charged with taking the redemption He has granted us everywhere we go, seeking the restoration of all. We are to aid the restoration of broken places until His parousia (the return of Jesus).
This isn’t a pattern that just comes with Christ though — it is evident in the earliest pages of the Bible. When God called Abram (Gen. 12) and he followed, God ended His conversation with Abram letting him know that all peoples on the earth would be blessed through Him. Even before the redemption of Christ is understood, God’s heart to see His creation redeemed to Himself and restored is clearly visible.
Sodom and Gomorrah
To illustrate this more vividly, the story of Sodom and Gomorrah makes for interesting reading. We all know the story, right? These are wicked cities where no man cares for righteousness. Truth be told, “evil sexual deeds” are what they are most known for (and really, nothing else). Abraham pleads with God to stay judgement, dependent on righteous men being found within the city. Of course none are and the cities are destroyed (along with Lot’s wife who looked back upon it).
Nine times out of ten when you hear people talk about Sodom today it’s in regards to homosexuality and other such sexual deviancy (at least in my experience). While it’s true that this was a periphery issue which led to its destruction, sexual deviance was merely symptomatic of a much, much worse underlying problem (one we’d do good to make note of in our society). To flesh it out I’m heading to the prophets to see what they have to say about the nation of Israel in relation to Sodom.
49 “This was the sin of your sister Sodom: she and her daughters were proud, had abundance of food, and enjoyed carefree ease, but they did not help the poor and needy. 50 They were haughty and committed abominable crimes before me. So, when I saw it, I removed them. 51 Samaria has not committed half the sins you have; you have done more abominable deeds than they did. You have made your sisters appear righteous by all the abominable things you have done. 52 So now, bear your disgrace, because you have given your sisters reason to justify their behavior. Because the sins you have committed were more abominable than those of your sisters; they have become more righteous than you. So now, be ashamed and bear the disgrace of making your sisters appear righteous.
This tells us several interesting things about the state of Sodom prior to its destruction as well as what directly leads to its destruction. Pre-destruction, Sodom was a nation incredibly blessed — they had an abundance of food and enjoyed “carefree ease” which tells me they really didn’t have a concern in the world (and sounds a bit like other nations I know of) — it seems people had everything they needed. God’s blessing though terminated on themselves (one way to think of this — no restoration occurred) and unfortunately this seemed to lead them down the path of pride which led directly to the unrighteousness that gets them destroyed. I find it interesting that the first piece of the unrighteousness puzzle is that they didn’t help the poor and needy among them. If we are to take the prophet seriously — this is one of the first warning signs of this deeper heart issue: pride. As we fill ourselves with pride our focus is drawn more and more inward until there is no concern for anything else. This resultant focus inward also ultimately leads to the “abominable crimes” before God as we only become concerned for our own personal desires/needs/wants.
There is one major point to take from these verses in regards to walking in God’s story in history and it is really quite simple: God’s blessing shouldn’t ever end with you. Everything you have and everything you are shouldn’t just flow inward — it should naturally be flowing out. You can’t/won’t do this if you have a proud and haughty heart towards God and those around you so don’t let that happen. At a very base level, we must check ourselves against pride. If we take these verses seriously this means asking (a) am I doing what I can to support the poor and needy of my neighborhood (either spiritually poor and needy or physically poor and needy)? and (b) am I performing any “abominable crimes” before God?
Ezekiel isn’t the only prophet that speaks of Sodom. Isaiah in numerous places echoes the words of Ezekiel and expounds upon them. Starting in chapter 1 at verse 10 Isaiah calls Israel Sodom and Gomorrah and continues to get seriously in their face. According the Isaiah, the Lord basically says he’s tired of their sacrifices and that He doesn’t want them. He says that He can’t tolerate their festivals and sabbaths and assemblies. God says He looks the other way when they pray. All of this would be pretty incredulous for the Israelites to hear as God had instituted it all and expected it of them. The fact remains though that they were doing all this while tainted with impure blood. Outward they had all the workings of redemption but inward they were vile, sinful beings. God’s blessing was extending no further than themselves. What does God call them to?
16 Wash! Cleanse yourselves! Remove your sinful deeds from my sight. Stop sinning! 17 Learn to do what is right! Promote justice! Give the oppressed reason to celebrate! Take up the cause of the orphan! Defend the rights of the widow!
First and foremost — repentance from all the sinning. Secondly though they are to take the restoration they know with them and develop some since of a social conscience. In other words, their redemption doesn’t terminate with themselves; instead, they should turn it into restoration for others.
This though certainly isn’t the only place this theme can be found. Isaiah 58 is another great passage that speaks directly to this. It starts just as the Isaiah 1 passage calling into question the outward religious actions (this time chiefly fasting) when inner hearts are as black as night.
3 They lament, ‘Why don’t you notice when we fast? Why don’t you pay attention when we humble ourselves?’ Look, at the same time you fast, you satisfy your selfish desires, you oppress your workers.
Just as before the problem is that everything is turned inward — it’s their own selfish desires that they are fulfilling. God’s blessing is ending solely with them. But what does God want?
6 No, this is the kind of fast I want. I want you to remove the sinful chains, to tear away the ropes of the burdensome yoke, to set free the oppressed, and to break every burdensome yoke. 7 I want you to share your food with the hungry and to provide shelter for homeless, oppressed people. When you see someone naked, clothe him! Don’t turn your back on your own flesh and blood! 8 Then your light will shine like the sunrise; your restoration will quickly arrive; your godly behavior will go before you, and the LORD’s splendor will be your rear guard. 9 Then you will call out, and the LORD will respond; you will cry out, and he will reply, ‘Here I am.’ You must remove the burdensome yoke from among you and stop pointing fingers and speaking sinfully. 10 You must actively help the hungry and feed the oppressed. Then your light will dispel the darkness, and your darkness will be transformed into noonday.
It’s the same theme repeated: restoration to those that need it. We even get echoes of the Great Commandment part 2 here: love your neighbor as yourself because they are your own flesh and blood. They are no different than you are.
To kick this discussion off I wrote that a missional heart is one joined with God’s working in history and it really is. The drive towards missional living comes from this understanding that we are a part of God’s story and that redemption doesn’t end with us — there is a clear drive towards seeing restoration around us. In the passages I used from the Old Testament this looks likes working towards getting ourselves straightened out (rooting the sin out of our lives) and then taking care of the poor and needy and sick and orphaned and widowed — essentially all of those on the margins of society. It’s important to note here though that this isn’t something we have to do (as if our own redemption is dependent on it). Rather it is something we should be driven to as it lies at the very heart of who we are now as redeemed beings. If we aren’t taking the redemption we’ve been given to those around us (seeking the restoration of all to God) we have some pretty serious questions we need to be asking ourselves.
As an aside, this developing heart I see in those around me is exciting. It excites me to see those in my community and like-minded communities join together to see actual change in the surrounding areas. It’s exciting to see money going straight to missional work and bringing Jesus to those that don’t know Him rather than padding ourselves with multi-million dollar buildings and technology systems that in the end don’t really matter all that much. It’s exciting to see the focus taken off of ourselves and placed where it should be: the cross of Christ which can then filter it to others. The cross is like a prism — focusing on it doesn’t render a reflection of ourselves, rather it refracts it to wherever is necessary. And I’ll end with that at the moment knowing full well that this topic of “missional” isn’t one that will be decided in just a couple of posts. Look for more coming in the future.